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What Not to Say When I'm Having a Panic Attack (and What to Say Instead)

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When you have anxiety, there may be several moments in your life where you will have very unpleasant panic attacks. In fact, even people without anxiety could have a panic attack at some point. Physically, it might start as a heaviness in your chest while your stomach tightens. Your heart rate increases and your insides might be twisting tight. As your heart continues to pound faster, the anxious feeling might build. I soon experience that moment where I want to grab someone, anyone, and beg them to help me, when I know they can’t. Your whole body might feel like it’s shaking. It can get hard to breathe, like you’re no longer in control. All of this builds and builds until you have a full-blown panic attack. For me, that means crying, shaking, having trouble breathing and pacing around my kitchen trying to make it stop.

I can assure you, it is far from a pleasant experience. Some people might have panic attacks seemingly out of no where. Others might have one when they are suddenly given bad news, when they experience a change in life or when the stress is just too much. Imbalances in medications, mental illness and trauma triggers can also cause panic attacks. Any large or small trigger that someone has can potentially spark one.

If you are someone who has had panic attacks, I hope you can relate to my experience, because panic attacks can happen differently for everyone. But I think we can all agree that they’re awful and that it is hard to help others understand what it’s like when they haven’t experienced one — to explain how it feels or why it might happen. More importantly, to be able to tell someone how to help you when you’re experiencing a panic attack.

Because from the outside, it might just seem like a person is getting upset — sometimes over something small or nothing at all. Many people may mean well when they say something with good intention, without understanding that what they’re saying is not as helpful as they thought.

Here are 6 things not to say to someone having a panic attack:

1. “You’re overreacting,” or, “You’re being irrational.”

This is personally the worst for me. When I hear that, it just makes me mad because I know exactly what kind of reaction I’m having. Over or under, irrational or not, it doesn’t matter — because it’s happening. Your feelings are valid.

2. “You’re OK,” or, “Everything is OK.”

No, I’m not and it’s not. I’m having a panic attack. I’m just not OK, and you telling me I am doesn’t make it true.

3. “It’s nothing important,” or, “This isn’t a big deal.”

It is important to me, it is a big deal to me.  Even if it is nothing, or it was triggered by something else, I’m still having a panic attack. This is important to acknowledge and understand if you want to help.

4. “Just calm down.”

Often, I find that a panic attack is extremely hard to come down from. It’s not just crying over something that I can easily calm down from and then think about the future. It’s difficult to stop and your body usually has control. Even if you try to stop it, sometimes you just can’t. Telling me to “just calm down” isn’t very sensitive to my experience and doesn’t usually help.

5.  “Why are you getting so upset?”

This one applies more when someone might not understand what a panic attack is. They might not be aware of the physical reaction caused by a panic attack, so to them, it can often seem sudden and out of nowhere. When someone asks me that, I can’t stop mid-attack and explain what a panic attack is, so it just makes me feel frustrated.

6. “Just stop.”

As I’ve said, and as many of you who experience panic attacks may know, you can’t always simply stop. This phrase is most upsetting, not just during panic attacks, but when it comes to mental illness in general. You can’t “just stop” having a mental illness.

Here are 4 suggestions of what to say instead:

(Many of these are flexible to the situation, relationship and individual.)

1. “How can I help you?”

In many situations, asking this can be great because it gives me a chance to answer. Maybe I would say nothing, but I would know that someone wants to help me, but they aren’t forcing their help. In my case, I often need to ask for more tissues.

2. “Breathe, we’ll get through this together.”

Reminding me that I’m not alone is really comforting because panic attacks can make you feel extremely lonely and helpless. Telling me to breathe also reminds me that I can.

3. “Everything will be OK.”

This one is a little tricky because it can be taken the same was as, “You are OK,” except this phrasing doesn’t dismiss what you’re going through in that moment. If you use a really soothing voice in an embrace, then it can bring comfort.

4. Actions speak louder than words.

Opening your arms and offering a hug, holding someone tight or simply holding a hand.  Bringing something — some tea, water, tissues, a blanket or something I’ve asked for. Simply just sit next to me so I know that you’re there.

Panic attacks can be awful, both when you’re having one and when you see someone having one and want to desperately help. Understanding what is helpful and what isn’t can go a long way.

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Thinkstock photo via David De Lossy 

Originally published: August 28, 2017
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